Monday, January 21, 2013

The Problem of God

The American Jesuit John Courtney Murray (1904-1967) gave 1962's St. Thomas More lectures at Yale University. The talks were published as a slender volume entitled The Problem of God. I began reading these lectures on the train from Boston to New York and found them utterly fascinating. 
In the introduction to the text, Murray makes the following incisive observation:
If God is not, no one is permitted to say or even think that he is, for this would be a monstrous deception of oneself and of others. It would be to cherish and propagate a pernicious illusion whose result would necessarily be the destruction of man. On the other hand, if God is, again one thing is not permitted. It is not permitted that any man should be ignorant of him, for this ignorance, too, would be the destruction of man. On both counts, therefore, no man may say that the problem of God is not his problem. 
I find these words brilliantly refreshing. CNN's recent story about the "Godless Mom" who has decided to raise her children makes reference to what, I believe, is the core problem facing public discourse about religion. Deborah Mitchell writes:
I understand why people need God. I understand why people need heaven. It is terrifying to think that we are all alone in this universe, that one day we - along with the children we love so much - will cease to exist. The idea of God and an afterlife gives many of us structure, community and hope.
I do not want religion to go away. I only want religion to be kept at home or in church where it belongs. It's a personal effect, like a toothbrush or a pair of shoes. It's not something to be used or worn by strangers. I want my children to be free not to believe and to know that our schools and our government will make decisions based on what is logical, just and fair - not on what they believe an imaginary God wants. 
All me to be politically incorrect: this is nonsense. Mitchell exemplifies the incoherent stance of "I have my beliefs, you have your beliefs, and we're both okay so long as we don't talk about those beliefs." Yet the beliefs of the theist and the atheist are so different, they express something so fundamentally different, that one is right and the other wrong.

As one of my teachers used to say, "It's my job to tell you when you're wrong. If every answer is right, no one is."

Now, surely someone will say, "Ryan, aren't you being a bit harsh? Don't we have Freedom of Speech guaranteed in the Constitution?" My answer is a qualified yes. The framers of the Constitution did not, as Murray points out, believe that a person "has a right to say what he thinks merely because he thinks it." The goal was to reject political censorship, to enable men and women to enter into the public discourse and offer opinion and thought in a way that contributed to the whole. Freedom of speech, on this reckoning, means being free to enter into public discourse.

Returning to Murray's opening quote, I sincerely believe we are faced with a significant either/or that must be engaged in a critical manner. I think we need sincere thinkers, not sensationalizers, to think critically and carefully in dialogue with one another to answer the deepest and ultimately most vital question: Is there a God?

If there is no God, then I shall repent of my life and apologize to those students I have taught, to those readers who have ever read my writing. I will apologize for having perpetrated a fraud. I shall harbor bitter resentment against my parents for raising me in a benighted world. I shall rejoice in being disenchanted from a lie and seek out other avenues, new pursuits, where it is "I" and not the "Most High" who is served.

One of us - the theist and the atheist - lives in ignorance. Saying, "Get rid of God, keep religion" is a bandage on a flesh wound. I sincerely believe we owe it to ourselves and our children to confront this question in a rigorous and critical way, entering into discourse with a spirit of generosity and curiosity, and allow our lives to be formed accordingly. For the answer to the question has the ultimate purchase on the meaning and purpose of our lives, has the power to draw a person from a life of ministry to the poor to the halls of power, simply by answering whether there is, or is not, a God at all. 


Walter said...

I'm confused in how you think Mitchell, in the quote, suggests that discussion concerning whether or not there is a God shouldn't be allowed in the public square, if I understand what you're saying correctly.

I think she is addressing the idea of religion being intertwined with government, not calling for the end of discourse over the question of whether or not there is a God.

In the first paragraph of the quote, she's saying that people can believe what they want, and by extension, I think this implies that they can question what they want, too. If your main concern is with the sentence "I only want religion to be kept at home or in church where it belongs," I think she's referring to the practice of religion, not the discussion of fundamental ideas concerning the origin of the universe and humankind. Otherwise, I think she would have specifically used the word "God" instead of "religion."

I don't understand where you are coming from on this. I understand your position, but how it relates to Mitchell's quote doesn't make too much sense for me. I'm just wondering if you could clarify. Thanks.

Ryan G. Duns, SJ said...

The juxtaposition between Mitchell and Murray is what I want to emphasize: I simply don't think that God, as she sees it, is something people "need" as some sort of pretend crutch. Either there is or isn't a God. If there's no God, then we owe it to people to disabuse them of the notion; if there is, then we owe it to them to share that insight. It's an either/or, a statement of fact rather than an expression of opinion.

That's the whole point, though, isn't it. Our discourse in the West has relegated religion to the arena of opinion, to "true for me" but not truth in itself. The Declaration of Independence began with "We hold these truths to be self-evident" yet, today, we hear so often rampant denial of the existence of truth.

My point of departure is simply to say that we need to recognize that God's existence is a vital question, one that transcends mere opinion and cuts to the very essence of human life. I think it makes an enormous difference to life if there is, or isn't, a God. It is only when we can get on this page of the discussion, however, that meaningful dialogue can take place.

A.J. Ellis said...

I really like that quote, thank you for sharing it.

The juxtaposition of Mitchell's quote next to Murray's reminds me of Chesterton's The Ball and the Cross. The atheist and theist find themselves respecting the other for recognizing the "problem" of God as existing as an explosive either/or, rather than an impotent maybe/maybe not.

Once again, thanks for sharing.